Friday Five: The First 5 Books I’ve Finished So Far in 2020!

white book in white table near yellow wall
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Happy Friday, faithful reader! Wanted to take a minute and share what I’ve been reading so far this year. Maybe you’ll find something new to add to your hold list or Amazon cart!

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The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson

This book may be an early candidate for top-five reads of the year, because I think it’s one of my favorite books of the last few years. Ferguson uses an event from church history called the Marrow Controversy in the 18th century as the springboard for a discussion of the key theological ideas involved: the relationship between grace and works, assurance of salvation, and the believer’s union with Christ. Every time I sat down to read a bit more of this book, I came away encouraged. Ferguson’s insightful commentary on the facets of this semi-obscure theological debate helped me to sharpen how I think and speak about the love of God in Christ Jesus. I would strongly, strongly encourage you to pick this one up.

A Great and Glorious Game, by A. Bartlett Giamatti

This slim volume of baseball essays by Bart Giamatti, former Harvard president and commissioner of Major League Baseball until his untimely death, is a quick and delightful read. Giamatti’s command of imagery and metaphor was masterful. His essays, especially the most famous entry “The Green Fields of the Mind,” are like rich dark chocolate for the lover of words–roll it around on your tongue a bit, read a few lines out loud, savor the sound of them. Even if you don’t like baseball, you will appreciate the deft and delicate intricacies of Giamatti’s writing.

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa

On an unnamed island ruled by an oppressive regime, random things are suddenly outlawed and immediately begin to disappear and be forgotten. So begins the plot of Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, and when I first heard the concept, I immediately put the book on my library hold list. In the end, I found the book to be enjoyable but not as moving as I had expected. I’m not sure if that’s due to occasional stilted writing (perhaps an issue of translation from the original Japanese?) or because it felt very self-consciously *literary,* and I find myself enjoying high-brow literary fiction less and less lately. In any case, the concept is intriguing, and the climax of the book is quite unexpected as it dips its toe into urban fantasy. If you’re interested, it’s worth your time.

The Prayer that Turns the World Upside Down, by Al Mohler

If you are a Christian of almost any tradition, you were likely taught the “Lord’s Prayer” (a/k/a the “Model Prayer”) at some point in your theological training. Many of us who grew up in the church have recited it from early childhood. This level of familiarity might often cause us to gloss over this short but powerful prayer without considering its ramifications. In this fine little book, Dr. Mohler works through each phrase of the prayer and spells out some of its world-shaking implications. The writing is very accessible and approachable, and while some of the content may seem like review, it’s all worth reviewing. The things we’ve known the longest are often the things we need to be reminded of most often.

Budgeting for a Healthy Church, by Jamie Dunlop

Truth be told, this isn’t the type of book I’d have picked up in years past. It’s only on my shelf because it was a giveaway book at last year’s Southern Baptist Convention, and you know how much I love free books. Obviously, being a lay elder at my church makes a book on church budgets a bit more meaningful to me than it would otherwise; much more so that I providentially have this book on my radar as our church is potentially merging with another local church, so the discussion of church budgets is a pertinent one for us. That said, I was surprised how much I enjoyed and benefitted from this short and practical volume. Even if you are “just” a church member in the pews, I think you’ll also benefit from Dunlop’s thoughtful discussion of the “why” of church budgets and his framing of how our church budget shows what our local church values. I definitely recommend this one, especially for anyone involved with church finances or who is interested in thinking through the topic.

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There you go, folks. My first five completed books of the year!

What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments below!

The4thDave’s 2019 Reading List!

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s a yearly tradition, so I can’t resist. Here’s a quick list of the books I finished* in 2019:

[*Since I always have several books in-progress, I count finishes and not complete reads in my yearly lists.]

January
>>Somewhere The Band is Playing – Ray Bradbury (novella)
>>The Tech-wise Family – Andy Crouch
>>Them – Ben Sasse
>>All Things for Good – Thomas Watson
>>Family Shepherd — Voddie Baucham

February
>>R.U.R. – the brothers Cajek (play)
>>Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
>>The Gospel and Personal Evangelism – Mark Dever
>>Digital Minimalism – Cal Newport
>>Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View – Wingard, Eliff, Chrisman, Burchett
>>Understanding the Lord’s Supper – Bobby Jamieson

March
>>Evangelism – Mack Stiles
>>Mortal Engines – Phillip Reeve
>>Forever and a Day – Anthony Horiwitz

April
>>The Dichotomy of Leadership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
>>Civil War: Spiderman – various (graphic novel)
>>The Spy who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carre
>>Family-Focused Faith – Voddie Baucham

May
>>Competing Spectacles – Tony Reinke
>>A Murder of Quality – John LeCarre
>>The Looking-Glass War – John LeCarre
>>What is a Healthy Church Member? – Thabiti Anyabwile
>>Side by Side – Ed Welch

June
>>Enjoying God — RC Sproul
>>Deep Work — Cal Newport
>>Bad Blood – John Carryrou

July
>> Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John LeCarre
>> Fellowship with God – Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

August
>>The Go-Getter – Peter Kyne
>>Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual – Jocko Willink

September
>> The Apostles Creed – Al Mohler

October
>>Prayer – John Onwuchekwa
>>The Church – Mark Dever

November
>>Essential Readings on Evangelism – SBTS
>>The Need – Hannah Phillips

Did Not Finish (DNF)
August – Watchmen: The Annotated Edition – Moore/Gibbons (While the annotations were fascinating, this critically-acclaimed graphic novel was just too dark and depressing for me to enjoy, so I bailed about a quarter of the way through.)

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Total Read: 35, including a novella, a play, and a graphic novel

The Split: 11 fiction, 24 non-fiction (16 specifically theological books)

Most Read: John LeCarre and Jocko Willink, each with 3; Mark Dever, with 2

Top Five Recommendations from My 2019 Reading:

  • Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin — This memoir/motivational book by former Navy SEALs sounds a little more Rex-kwan-do than it really is. Willink and Babin use real-world military experience as metaphors for best-practices of personal responsibility and individual discipline. While the book is very intentionally geared toward the business world (both men are now corporate consultants in their civilian careers), the ideas and insights are definitely applicable. Willink’s follow-ups are also worth a look, if you appreciate his style of writing, but this one is the must-read of his work.
  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John LeCarre — LeCarre is rightly considered one of the best spy-genre writers of the 20th century, and this story is one of his best, full of intrigue, betrayal, love, deception, and a moving consideration of the toll that even cold wars can take on the conscience. It’s not as flashy as one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories, but it’s certainly more thoughtful and substantial. The ending of Spy will stick with you long after you turn the last page. If you haven’t dug into this genre of fiction, this one is a great entrypoint.
  • Digital Minimalism, by Cal NewportI’ve written about his one pretty extensively already, so I won’t rehash it here. Suffice it to say, this one is a book that I’m glad I read and took summary notes on, because I want to keep coming back to Newport’s idea of intentional, limited digital technology use as a way to limit the negative effects of social media and online life.
  • Bad Blood, by John Carryrou — I don’t often read current-year exposes or true-crime non-fiction, but I first heard about the fascinating freefall of Theranos on a podcast early this year, and the story intrigued me enough to want to dive further in. Carryrou is a reporter who first broke the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, one of the biggest scams in American medicine and technology in the last few years. He details the story of this brilliant young woman whose charisma and drive to succeed helped her to perpetuate a multi-million-dollar medical research scheme that eventually exploded in her face. Some of the events are so outlandish as to defy belief in even a fictional account. I really enjoyed this one. You will, too.
  • Competing Spectacles, by Tony ReinkeI’ve written about this one as well, so I’ll just reiterate that this book is an important one for our visual and digital age, because it not only addresses the artifice of digital spectacles, but it focuses on how it affects our hearts and souls as people made in the image of God. This theological aspect is something missing from many other analyses of the affect of screen culture on human life.

And as it happens, Competing Spectacles is the free audiobook for the month of January over at ChristianAudio.com, so if you are interested in checking it out, you should head over and sign up to get your free download. (No sponsorship/affiliate link there–I just found out about this today and wanted to share!)

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Your Turn!

What was the best book you read in 2019? Let us know in the comments!

 

Why I Like Being a Baker Books Blogger

I have to confess: I have an addiction. I…I accumulate books way faster than I read them.

There, I said it.

Kidding aside, this…this can sometimes be a problem, especially when my to-be-read “shelf” becomes an entire bookcase. I receive books as gifts, I find cheap ebooks for my Kindle, and the library–my goodness, the library!

But one of the best ways I have found to get access to books, especially books about theology and Christian life, is by becoming an online book reviewer. If you’ve been a reader of mine for a while, you know I will post book reviews from time to time that include the disclaimer that I was given a review copy of the book in exchange for my honest response.

Being an online book reviewer is the perfect way to get access to new books without breaking the bank (or sitting in the library “hold” queue for months!).

I’ve been a review blogger on and off for the last 5-6 years. I’ve written reviews for titles from Crossway, Zondervan, Tyndale, P&R Books, and even a few non-religious publishers (via Netgalley). However, my favorite publisher to review books for is Baker Books.

[Disclosure: Why am I writing about this now? Because this post is partially an entry into a contest put on by Baker for–you guessed it–free books. So I want to be upfront with you about that, reader. That said, every word of this post is true, and I stand by it even if this weren’t part of a contest entry. Okay, are we all clear on that? Cool. Thanks.]

Here are 3 reasons I enjoy being an official “Baker Books Blogger”:

  1. They publish books I actually want to read. Some Christian publishers send out their list of books for review, and as I glance over it, I find myself making a “disgusted Clint Eastwood” face. But Baker Books are often right in my wheelhouse, touching on issues that I find intriguing or areas I know I’d like to grow in understanding. Sometimes, if I’m in a busy season, I’ll just delete other reviewer emails unread, but I always open emails from Baker.
  2. They send actual physical books! Most online book review programs will send you a PDF or maybe an epub file that you have to figure out how to upload. There will be conversion and formatting errors, making the draft difficult to read. They often don’t integrate easily into the Kindle bookshelf. If you’re excited about the book, you just deal with it, of course, but most of the time, it’s a bit irritating. By contrast, when you review for Baker, you can request physical books. There are real, honest-to-goodness, paper-and-ink books on my shelf that I’ve received from and reviewed for Baker. The willingness to pay extra to print and ship books to reviewers puts Baker Books in a different class altogether.
  3. They are more relaxed about timelines. Okay, admitting this may not make the Baker folks happy, but: I’m sometimes pretty late on these reviews. With other publishers and platforms, that is a huge no-no. You can get locked out of the platform, or lose the ability to request any more review books. With Baker, it’s more relaxed, which I really appreciate, since there are times when you request a book and then run into a really busy patch at work or at home. Truth be told, I currently owe Baker a handful of reviews from books I’ve received but haven’t read yet. (Those are coming, y’all, trust me.) What I’m saying is, being a Baker Books Blogger doesn’t feel like a job or a chore. It’s sometime I enjoy doing, when I have the opportunity to do so. I appreciate that.

If you are interested in reviewing books on your website, Amazon reviews, or other social media outlets, I think you should check out the Baker Books Blogger program.

I’ve enjoyed being part of it, and hope to continue doing so for as long as they’ll have me. (As long as I catch up on my back-log of reviews, I guess!)

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Have you ever been part of an online book review program? I’d be interested to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

The4thDave Reviews: “Competing Spectacles” by Tony Reinke

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In a culture wholly driven by the moving image, we feed on spectacle every moment of the day. We are awash in the blue glow of screens almost from the moment our eyes open in the morning, until we collapse into sleep at night. While a library of books has been written about the good and bad (mostly bad) of a digital or image-driven culture, there have been considerably fewer authors in the last half-century who have focused on the deeper spiritual ramifications of constant spectacle.

In recent months, I have enjoyed (and discussed) books by Andy Crouch, Cal Newport, and Senator Ben Sasse, regarding the need for distance and perspective when it comes to digital media, but these arguments have been overwhelmingly pragmatic and relational. As I noted in my review of Digital Minimalism, I was keenly aware of Newport’s lack of spiritual perspective; that is, he had a good sense of the effect of digital obsession on the mind but no sense of how it bends the soul.

This is why I am thrilled to recommend Tony Reinke’s latest work to you: Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age.

In Competing Spectacles, Reinke fills in that missing piece in the important discussion of screen addiction and digital distraction by focusing on the cumulative effect such diversions can have on our spiritual life and growth.

In this follow-up to 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Reinke examines the prevalence of “spectacles” in our culture, and how spectacle saturation affects the spiritual appetites. The good news is, he doesn’t simply take the anti-tech position of “screens bad, stay away!” Rather, in the first section of the book, Reinke examines the nature of spectacle in several facets of cultural life, the power that spectacles have on us, and the way our appetites for such entertainment are developed.

In the second section of the book, Reinke considers what Christianity has to say about spectacles–particularly, which spectacles can and should capture our eyes and minds. This section really sings, as he applies the transforming truth of the Gospel gently but directly to our tendency toward amusement and distraction.

Near the end of Part 2, Reinke provides “Summations and Applications” that help the reader think through how we can put these truths to work in our hearts and daily lives. He concludes with a beautiful vision of what happens when our gaze is rightly fixed on a Spectacle worth observing.

Throughout the book, I was struck by by Reinke’s eloquence, recalling the proverb about words fitly spoken being like “apples of gold in settings of silver.” Had I been reading a paper copy, there would be several sections with entire pages highlighted, underlined, and starred. Once in a while, I had to just stop for a moment to appreciate a perfectly crafted sentence. Reinke outdid himself in the mechanics and construction of his prose in this book.

Final Recommendation

In the very first chapter, Reinke calls Competing Spectacles “a theology of visual culture,” and the description is apt. This isn’t just a book about screen time and self-control, social media addiction and the degradation of societal decorum. This book is inherently and blessedly theological in scope, and as such, it fills a glaring gap in this important discussion.

I heartily recommend Competing Spectacles to all my readers, and particularly those who (like me) have been wrestling with the effect of digital media and entertainment on their hearts. This book should be part of every Christian’s library, where it can be revisited from time to time for reconsideration and reflection.

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Note: I have been provided an advance copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. The preceding thoughts are entirely my own.

The4thDave Reads: “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

We’ve seen the blog posts and editorials for years: “How I Gave Up Social Media for 30 Days and It CHANGED MY LIFE!” “Why I Quit Facebook and Got My Life Back” “Quitting Instagram Helped Me Lose 40 Pounds and Run The Boston Marathon!!!” (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Hand-wringing posts about the dangers of online culture, social media addiction, and how often we contemplate quitting (or quit and then come back) are almost becoming a cliche lately. (Guilty.) But no matter how many productivity gurus talk about the power of “digital detoxing” and the benefits of set fasts from social media, many of us are still struggling with this form of addiction. (Yes, us, I’m a junkie just like you.)

I read these types of posts constantly. The most clear-headed thinker I’ve found on this topic is Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. I’ve shared the link to his TED talk about quitting social media in the past. I heard sometime last year that his next book would deal with the idea of “digital minimalism” and was immediately intrigued. Well, it was well worth the wait.

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in A Noisy World is a persuasive call to reconsider the choices we make about our digital lives.

Newport challenges the reader not to throw away all technology–he’s no Luddite seeking a purely analog life–but rather to ask very pointed and thoughtful questions about why and how we use technology. He challenges the notion that a mere potential benefit of a device or service is a good enough reason to adopt its use, or that having more features is automatically better. He draws the reader’s attention to the fact that we are the product being sold by social media corporations, and that our time and attention have been monetized for someone else’s benefit.

Beyond a Simple Detox

Newport suggests a 30-day challenge: an intentional digital fast (with common-sense provisions for certain necessary work/life demands), followed by a slow and deliberate re-integration of tech. During this post-fast period, he suggests that we ask 3 questions of our devices and apps: Does using this tool support a belief or priority that I deeply value? Is this the best way I can pursue that ideal or value? Can I optimize the way I use this device or program in pursuit of that value?

For example, if we use social media for keeping up with our family, Newport would argue that what we’re doing when we like or share or comment is mere connection, and it doesn’t take the place of real communication. Instead, while we might still use social media in a very limited way (both in time and scope) to catch up on news about our loose circle of acquaintances, we should also pursue actual communication with people who matter to us via in-person visits, phone calls, or even video chats (for far-flung loved ones). The complexity of face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication, Newport writes, is what provides the richness of human interaction–a complexity that text-based communication falls short of providing.

Don’t Click “Like”

Throughout the second half of the book, Newport gives recommendations of practices one can pursue as part of the “Attention Resistance” pushing back against screen consumption. Some of these ideas are pretty simple (make time for solitude, go for walks, pursue an analog leisure activity that requires physical exertion), while others are a bit more challenging, at least for me.

One such challenge Newport makes is to stop clicking “like.” He talks about how social media introduced the “like” button as a way of providing a minimal amount of feedback that still stimulates the user (the “digital slot-machine” idea of irregular positive feedback conditioning). I struggle with this, because I use the “like” button a LOT (as those of you on my socials can attest). However, I see what he means. A real-world example: I just posted on Facebook 42 minutes ago that we were having another baby. As of right now, 3 people have actually commented (2 of which said “congrats!”), and 20 people have hit the “Like/Love/Wow” emoji. [Update: I’ve gotten more comments since then, but the ratio of reactions to comments is running about 4-5 to 1.] Now, I do appreciate that these folks reacted to the news (that’s how Facebook describes it–reacting), but the vast majority so far have only reacted enough to click a mouse or tap a screen and then likely moved on with their scrolling. And I can’t fault them; that’s just what we do, isn’t it? But Newport suggests we stop, because this isn’t actually communicating anything. It’s one bit of information, a blip on the radar. And it’s a far cry from actual human community.

(And for the record, if you are one of the “likes” on my FB wall right now, this isn’t a slam against you. Thanks for taking a moment to read this. But hey, gimme a call sometime, so we can catch up, yeah?)

One Weakness

The only critique I have of Digital Minimalism is a worldview issue. Newport is writing from a secular perspective, so when he talks about the evolution of man as a social animal, he is missing a glaring clue as to why we are social creatures. Mankind was created by a personal, social, communicating God, a God who speaks and interacts with His creation, and because we bear the imprint of His image, we are social and communicative beings. That’s part of the reason why this reduction in human interaction is so unnatural; we were made by God for community, but our community is being undercut by a digital counterfeit that steals time away from incarnated interaction. The spiritual element of this whole idea is missing from Newport’s thinking on this subject, which is why other books by authors like Tony Reinke and Andy Crouch are necessary and helpful supplements to the ideas Newport presents.

Final Review

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism does more than simply point out the problem of digital addiction and social media enslavement. Newport helps the reader consider how to use these tools in a way that is healthier and more intentional than simple consumption and constant attention. While I think there are some blind spots in his argumentation due to differences in worldview, I would happily recommend this book to anyone who struggles with the idea of giving up digital tech or social media but still wants to reconsider the way he or she approaches these tools.

#FridayFive: Five Books I Finished in January (2/8/2019)

Happy Friday, y’all! I’m back with five books that I finished reading (or listening to) in January. Hope you find something you might want to check out soon!

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Somewhere A Band is Playing, by Ray Bradbury

I’ve already written about this a bit. Technically, this was one of 2 novellas by Bradbury, published under the title Now and Forever (along with “Leviathan ’99,” a futuristic take on Moby Dick). After finishing Band, I wasn’t eager to keep reading Bradbury’s later work, so I stopped with the first novella. That said, if you like light science fiction, Somewhere a Band is Playing is a pleasant-enough diversion (though you could do better, especially with Bradbury).

The Tech-Wise Family, by Andy Crouch

This short hardcover volume by Andy Crouch is a must-buy if you have any concerns about how you and your family engage with technology. Crouch details ten commitments that he and his family seek to follow, so that they can learn to be more in control of their relationship with technology and social media. I appreciate that the author is also honest about how successful he and his family are at keeping those commitments. Using a large amount of research from the Barna Group, Crouch describes the typical family’s use of technology and helps the reader think through the potential dangers of its “easy, everywhere” promises. This is a book that I’m still thinking about, weeks after finishing it, and I encouraged my wife to read it as well, so that we can discuss how it may influence our household.

Them, by Senator Ben Sasse

In some ways, Senator Sasse’s book Them reminded me of Jonathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage–a warning that life is more than politics and that we need connection and community to help address cultural issues as individual citizens. While Sasse is a professing Christian, what he proposes is not a theological solution as much as an ideological one: make the decision to see people who disagree with you politically as neighbors and fellow citizens, and work for their good as well. (Could you make the argument that you can’t do that well or effectively or for long without Christianity? I think so, but that’s not what he’s getting at in this book.) Sasse makes some pretty pointed observations about how our national conversation has become fragmented and fractured, and make suggestions about what we can do to try to shift course. I listened to the audiobook (read by the senator) and enjoyed it immensely. He gave me lots to think about and discuss with others. His chapter on political media and the monetization of outrage is stellar. He also suggests pulling back from overuse of technology by not only referencing Tony Reinke’s excellent book 12 Ways Your Smartphone is Changing You but also talking through Andy Crouch’s commitments from Tech-Wise Family. In other words, my favorite senator and I have a similar reading list. I wonder if he likes short stories…

All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson

This short-but-deep volume by Puritan pastor Thomas Watson is a 125-page meditation on one of the most misapplied verses in the Bible, Romans 8:28. However, in All Things for Good, Watson slowly considers each phrase (almost each word) and encourages the reader to meditate at length on God’s sovereignty and kindness. This was a rich and rewarding read, that I consumed a few paragraphs at a time before bed over several weeks. Just a page or so gave me enough to think about in the few minutes before I drifted off to sleep. As someone who struggles with nighttime anxiety, I can’t think of a better cordial (other than the Scriptures themselves) for soothing my worried heart.

Family Shepherds, by Voddie Baucham

I am reminded that there is no greater earthly role for me to take on than husband and father. Voddie Baucham’s excellent book Family Shepherds is a direct and bracing charge to men to be the spiritual leaders of their homes. In the book, Baucham looks at the man himself as a disciple, what it means to be a shepherd, the primacy of a man’s marriage in how he leads his home, how he should raise his children (with both formative and corrective discipline), and how he engages the world as a family shepherd. If you don’t know Voddie, I can’t recommend his preaching and speaking highly enough. Add this book to the list, especially if you are a Christian man who is or aspires to be a godly husband and father. In a culture that is currently debating the value and place of masculinity, it is imperative that Christian men seek to portray and exemplify Christlike leadership and care for their families, and so let their light shine.

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What have you read so far this year? Share your recommendations below in the comments!

DNF: 4 Books I Gave Up on in 2018

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

In my younger years, I would NEVER give up on a book halfway-through. I can only think of 2 books I tried to read before I was 18 that I chose not to finish because I was offended by the content or language.

When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the misguided notion that it was somehow wrong or bad to quit reading a book if it didn’t interest me or I didn’t have time. It took me a few years, but I finally came to realize that life is too short to slog through books you don’t care about reading.

So this year, while I have finished most of the books I began reading, there have been a handful of books that I started but decided not to finish for one reason or another:

  • The Loneliness of the Black Republican, by Leah Wright Rigueur — I may actually come back to this one at some point in the future. The premise intrigues me, since it challenges the unspoken assumption that all African-Americans do or should or must support the Democratic Party. However, the book is written at a pretty high academic level, and when I tried to read it back in February, I was not ready to keep up with Rigueur’s rigorous analysis. After struggling for about 30 pages to follow her initial arguments, I threw in the towel. She won’t catch me off-guard next time.
  • Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero — I figured this premise was a winner: A group of kids who became locally famous as a detective team (like the Scooby Doo gang) are haunted by something they discovered during their last case years ago. Now adults, the surviving members of the team (and the ghost of the non-surviving member) return to a haunted lake where a mysterious evil lurks–and it’s not just an old man wearing a monster-mask. And yet…it didn’t work for me. To be honest, it could have, but some of the narrative choices the author made bugged me, as well as the way he wrote some of the adult characters. I got about halfway through the book and realized I wasn’t having nearly as much fun as I had hoped, so I cashed in my chips and moved on.
  • The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing, by Zachary Petit — This is a helpful field guide from the good folks at Writer’s Digest about the ins and outs of freelance writing, particularly in the world of print and online short-form content creation. The style of the book is funny and light, and the information looked really helpful, but I realized after about 70 pages that it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked it up this fall. I had been gathering information about how to juggle side-work while keeping my day job, but since I wasn’t doing content creation, it wasn’t a good fit. I think it would be a great resource for anyone who’s entering the freelance writing market, so it’s worth checking out if that’s what you need.
  • Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts, by Jaron Lanier — You’re probably thinking that I didn’t finish this book because I am deep in the throes of social media addiction. Well, you’re… Look, you’re not wrong, necessarily, but that’s not the reason, okay? As it happens, right before I started this book, I was listening to an episode of the podcast “Table of (Mal)Contents.” The hosts were discussing books that “should have stayed a blog post or TED Talk”–popular (and sometimes best-selling) titles that are basically an inflated repackaging of earlier content, puffed up by repetition or illustration to reach “book” length. Well, I don’t know if Jaron Lanier gave a TED talk about deleting social media, but this 150-page book felt about 120 pages too long. It’s not that he had bad ideas, or that he was necessarily wrong. The book was just thin. After the first 2 or 3 chapters, I skimmed the rest of it. Other than some cheap shots at political parties and politicians he disagrees with, Lanier doesn’t provide anything groundbreaking here. (In fact, if you would actually like to watch a really good TED talk on the subject of quitting social media, this talk by Cal Newport is excellent.)

I think there have been a few more, but these are 4 books that I checked out on, this year. (Note: I didn’t include the handful of books that I’m still reading and just didn’t quite finish before entering 2019. I’ll add those to my 2019 reading list!)

What about you? Are there any books that you decided to quit reading this year? Or are you the type of reader who perseveres no matter what? Let me know in the comments!

The4thDave Reads: “What Is Reformed Theology?” by Dr. R.C. Sproul

I’m not sure exactly when I started exploring Reformed doctrine. It happened sometime in the late 2000’s, likely due to my crossing paths with the ministries of John Piper, Mark Driscoll (before he drove Mars Hill into a ditch), and Matt Chandler. Sometime between 2007 and 2010, I began really considering the doctrines of election and predestination, and it made me see parts of the New Testament with new eyes.

I grew up in the SBC, so if “Calvinism” was ever mentioned (which wasn’t often, in my circles), it was generally distrusted. In fact, thinking back to my early days of teaching college Sunday School classes, I shudder to remember the outright Arminianism that I taught for a few years. Suffice it to say, the tone and tenor of my teaching greatly changed.

Depending on whom you talk to, I’m not technically “reformed” in  my theology as much as “Calvinistic” in my soteriology — meaning, I hold to what’s called the “Doctrines of Grace” but I’m not confessional in my theology. (I’m still looking into it, y’all, chill out.) But no matter what label I would use for my own position, I have become convinced that the “reformed” doctrine of salvation is the best way to interpret the Scriptures.

Why bring all this up? Just putting my cards on the table, so that when I say I found Dr. Sproul’s classic book on the “basics” of Reformed theology compelling and instructive, I’m clear about my starting point and that I was already inclined to agree with it. What I found in this helpful volume only confirmed my resolve on these issues.

What Is Reformed Theology? provides an outstanding primer on the basics of (you guessed it) Reformed theology, as well as chapter-long explications of the 5 “petals” of the TULIP acrostic (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints), while addressing the misconceptions of and arguments against each concept. Dr. Sproul doesn’t make assumptions about his reader, but carefully works through the core concepts, in order to demonstrate the soundness of a Reformed reading of Scripture.

What Worked

I found this volume to be approachable though not simple. This isn’t a light and breezy read, but it’s also not tied down by opaque theological jargon. Dr. Sproul is a natural teacher, so his argumentation builds from simple to complex. If you’re looking to learn these concepts, this is a great resource.  Dr. Sproul touches on different points in church history that address the doctrinal discussions involved, and provides a Biblical justification for the arguments used.

The examination of free will and “compatibilism” in the chapter on total depravity was particularly helpful in clarifying my understanding on the idea of how our volition co-exists with God’s sovereignty. I had been introduced to this idea before, but Dr. Sproul’s explanation helped me to settle the ideas in my mind so that I could explain it more easily in my own teaching and writing.

I also appreciated how Dr. Sproul took time to address misconceptions and misapplications of the TULIP acrostic, including a helpful explanation about how some of the terminology used in the name of each doctrine may actually confuse the issue. For example, he argued that “P” may be better explained as the Preservation of the Saints, because it is the work of God that holds us, and not simply that we hold on to Him. This helped me consider how the way we say things should be carefully considered when we discuss theological truths.

Minor Quibbles

I do have two small critiques of this volume.

First, the chapter on covenant theology felt a bit thin. Granted, the nature of the volume did not allow for anything but the basics to be explained, but as someone who did not grow up in that mindset, I was hoping for a bit more meat on the bone when it came to the difference between covenant theology and other approaches like dispensationalism. I suppose the onus is on me to seek a deeper discussion on my own.

Secondly, the book just ends after the chapter on perseverance/preservation of the saints, the “P” of TULIP. I think a summary or concluding chapter that tied the ideas together again at the end would have been appropriate, rather than just running abruptly into the end-notes.

Also: End notes? Really? Hm.

My Recommendation

What is Reformed Theology? is an incredibly helpful volume for people who are unfamiliar with Reformed thinking (or grew up hearing that Calvinists are missions-hating boogeymen) or those who want to solidify their understanding of the Doctrines of Grace. Clocking in at 250 pages, this is a speedy and effective way to get your feet set as you begin to explore this theological system.

 

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Please Note: The publisher, Baker Books, provided my a paperback copy of the book in exchange for a honest review.

(I’m sorry it took me so long to write this, Baker! #OverdueBookReview )

#The4thDaveReads: Summer Round-up!

Hey y’all! I apologize for the radio silence over the last week or so. Between looking for freelance opportunities and helping take my baby sister back to college for the fall, I’ve been a bit overbooked! Suffice it to say, I’m happy to be back behind the keyboard.

Today, I’m back with some reviews of books I finished reading over the last 4-5 weeks. You ready? Let’s do this thing!

The Keto Reset Diet, by Mark Sisson — I’ve had more than a few conversations over the last 3 months about the weight-loss progress I’ve made. At first, I would simply say that I was following a ketogenic diet, but this resulted in more than a few blank stares. Sometimes, the person would respond, “So, like the Caveman Diet? Eating nothing but meat? Isn’t that unhealthy?” This would result in a much longer conversation than I’m sure my friend was really ready for, in which I would clarify what ketogenic eating means (low-carb, high-fat, moderate-protein) and how it has been beneficial to me, even beyond the scale. At the end, I usually trail off when I start feeling like one of those obnoxious fitness-cult people, droning on too long about an obscure dietary approach.

More recently, my response to keto questions has involved my bringing up Mark Sisson’s excellent book. I usually recommend The Keto Reset Diet for 3 reasons: 1) Sisson begins by laying out the scientific ideas behind this style of eating; 2) the book describes a 3-week carb-reduction process that is really “pre-keto” so that people avoid diving into the deep end too quickly and burning out; 3) there are dozens of helpful starter recipes for those who want to start eating this way. If you’re interested in checking out the keto eating style, Sisson’s book may be a great introduction for you.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan — Bunyan’s allegory of the Christian life, written from the confinement of an English prison cell, is one of the top-selling English-language books of all time, and for good reason. This narrative of a sinner’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City is part adventure story, part catechism, part Scriptural exegesis, and part soul-care textbook. Generations of Christians have found Bunyan’s tale encouraging and challenging.

What many modern readers miss is that the story is actually written in two parts: the popular first part that follows Christian’s journey to glory, and the less-well-known second part, in which Christian’s wife (aptly named Christiana) and their four children follow in his footsteps and make the trek to Zion, facing a few familiar faces and dangers, as well as some new ones.

I’ve written about this second part of the story elsewhere, but suffice it to say, I really love this book. Nevertheless, I can understand how hard it may be to get through sometimes; there are sections that are plainly didactic, as the narrative grinds to a halt to allow the characters engage in theological discourse. However, I would encourage readers to push through, because (unlike another much-beloved Christian children’s allegory) the theology is sound all the way through and rewards thoughtful consideration. In some cases, it may not be a bad idea to pick up a modern-language update, if it’s your first time through the story. On the other hand, if you can understand the King James Bible, you shouldn’t have any trouble with Bunyan’s original text.

Pops, by Michael Chabon — There are certain writers that I’ve read and enjoyed in the past but can’t really connect with in the present. I think Michael Chabon has become one of those writers. I remember enjoying Wonder Boys and adoring Kavalier and Clay, despite moments where the author’s worldview clearly conflicts with my own. There’s no question that Chabon is a talented novelist, so I hoped I would enjoy his non-fiction work just as much.

Pops is a collection of personal essays that Chabon wrote for various publications over the last few years. Given that the volume’s underlying subject matter is fatherhood, I assumed I would enjoy this peek into Chabon’s thoughts about being both a son and a father. In the end, I really just stopped caring about either.

Throughout each piece, it felt like Chabon wasn’t so much writing about his experience of fatherhood, as signalling to the reader that he was being the right kind of father, raising the right kind of children. His attempts at self-deprecation felt forced, as if he knew he was supposed to play the “slightly-out-of-touch-but-still-hip dad” role but couldn’t quite sell it. The whole exercise just felt forced. Maybe I’m not in the right frame of mind or time of life to appreciate it, but I don’t care enough to revisit it later. Although it’s a short collection (barely over 100 pages), I had to push to finish reading it and was relieved to hit that back cover.

Side Hustle, by Chris Gillebeau — As I’m sure I’ve written before, self-help/productivity/motivational books are only as good as what you actually do with that information. Or, as Gillebeau says at the end of every episode of his Side-Hustle School podcast (highly recommended, for the puns if nothing else!), “Inspiration is good, but inspiration combined with action is so much better!”

This is extremely true with his fantastic book, Side Hustle. If you have an idea for a new business, or want to try to create some extra income during your free time, this book is a must-read. I’ve realized over the last week that some of the roadblocks and frustration I’ve been experiencing with my attempts to build freelance work is because I haven’t been applying what I read in the book!

In Side-Hustle, Gillebeau takes you through a 5-week plan for brainstorming, planning, and executing a side-hustle business. There are step-by-step instructions about process, questions to consider, and mistakes to avoid. Along the way, he demonstrates these steps with story after story of hustlers who found success by making smart choices and working hard. It’s an inspiring read, even if (like me) you’ve never considered creating a business for yourself. I definitely recommend this book, especially if you’ve got the itch to build something of your own.

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As you can see, my reading this summer has been quite varied. As for the next few months of #The4thDaveReads, I’m working on a few interesting titles:

  • The Exemplary Husband, by Stuart Scott
  • Everybody Writes, by Ann Handley
  • The Thing Is, by Tony Payne
  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Prophets

I’m looking forward to discussing all of these with you in September!

Have a great Wednesday, and I’ll see you on Friday with another #FridayFive!

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Your Turn: What’s your favorite read from this summer (or any summers past)?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

The4thDave Reads: A mixed bag, to be honest…

Hey y’all, here’s are some “capsule reviews” of the books I’ve completed this month!

Finish!, by Jon Acuff: This is the third in what I like to call his “basic instructions” series of motivational books (following “Start” and “Do Over”–you’re welcome to use the moniker, Jon!). Acuff has created a fanbase by delivering easy-to-follow, approachable guidance for those who are wanting to improve their lives and careers, and he blends humor and self-deprecation into all of his advice. I have to admit, there are times when Acuff’s writing feels a bit too cutesy, but then he hits me with an observation that is both obvious and frustrating in its pointed truth. In Finish!, he writes about (no surprise here) finishing projects and completing goals, rather than letting them peter out into disappointment. There are questions to answer at the end of each chapter, as you think about goals you want to accomplish and what you can do to avoid your typical pitfalls in pursuing them. I found this to be a very useful book. I copied down all the diagnostic questions into a notebook and have been working through them over the last few days. I may be delving into some of this in later posts, so I’ll save that for later.

Smallville Season 11: Volumes 1 and 2 (“Guardian” and “Detective”), by Bryan Q. Miller and Pere Perez: I’m a big fan of the Smallville TV series. I don’t think it gets enough respect for how it paved the way for comic-book TV series, and how (despite its WB/CW teen-romance beginnings) it really came into its own as a proto-Superman story in the final seasons. This comic book series by Bryan Q. Miller (who was involved in the writing/directing of some Smallville episodes, I believe) carries on after the TV show’s finale, showing what comes next for the Big Blue Boy Scout. These first two collections contain the first 8 or so comics in this run (which has been going on for a few years and is still enjoying some popularity). The writing is pretty consistent with the tone of the show’s dialogue, and the storylines are right in line with what you’d expect: Lex Luthor, whose memory was wiped at the end of Season 10, is building a “defense” system to guard against alien threats. Superman is becoming a public figure and has to reckon with how to maintain a double life. In Volume 2, Bruce Wayne’s Batman arrives, and while he is antagonistic/suspicious of Superman at first, they quickly see eye to eye (in a way that’s more believable than Zach Snyder’s attempt at the concept). The dialogue of the series mainstays hits the right notes; I hear their portrayals as I read it, especially the Lex Luthor dialogue where Michael Rosenbaum’s iconic delivery is represented well. But the artwork. Oh, the artwork. I almost closed the first volume after 3 pages because the figures and faces of these characters were abominable, sometimes downright laughable. The quality of the art was inconsistent at best throughout both volumes. Perez has no idea whatsoever how to draw Rosenbaum’s Luthor without him devolving into a twice-photocopied image of One-Punch-Man. The artwork was distracting throughout the book, which is a real shame because the writing was on point. I stopped reading after Volume 2 because I needed to move on to some other things, but I’d like to pick it up again in the future. Hopefully, another artist was brought on board to improve upon Perez’s weak work.

American Assassin, by Vince Flynn: You know that GIF of Jason Bateman from Arrested Development, where he opens up the paper bag in the refrigerator marked “Dead Bird,” recoils slightly, and then says “I don’t know what I was expecting”? That’s my “TL;DR” review of American Assassin. I saw a movie trailer for the adaptation of Flynn’s story, and it looked kind of interesting, though it was clear there was potential for sexual content. I figured I’d try the novel, instead; after all, Flynn hit the NYT bestseller list. I was in the mood for something light and forgettable. Popcorn reading. How bad could it be? Answer: Bad. Not even really bad, just boring. The protagonist, Mitch Rapp, is an all-American college athlete whose girlfriend/fiancee/who-cares was killed in the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. (It took me a solid 100 pages to realize this book was set in 1990 or so. Bad reading comprehension, Dave!) He vows revenge (or, as he puts it, “retribution”) on the terrorists responsible and all like them, and hooks up with a secret CIA program for training black-ops assassins, as ya do. The first 200 pages of the book detail the extensive training and winnowing process conducted by Stan Hurley, a former spook with a legendary reputation in the more dangerous corners of the world. Finally, Rapp is selected for this assignment, because he is PERFECT IN EVERYTHING THAT HE DOES. That was the first big strike for me; the hero is too perfect. He’s in total control of every situation, his internal dialogue is primarily composed of clever quips, and it all comes easy to him. It’s like placing the worst parts of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond in a Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer skill-set. As a result, there never seemed to be any real stakes. The next 300 pages in which Rapp and his associates complete their missions becomes grindingly tedious. Oh, one of their allies is a wealthy old German investor with a gorgeous granddaughter in her twenties who is attracted to the hero? Then obviously they sleep together after knowing each other for 6 hours, because why not, right? Completely pointless. There were a few times I thought about abandoning the book because it was ludicrous in an utterly tedious way, but I was more than halfway through, and I figured, it had to get better at some point, right? [Ron Howard narration: “It didn’t get better.”] In summary: Boring, stupid, predictable, with foul language and a pointless (though blessedly short) sex scene. Pass on this one, gang.

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I also read a great book about the doctrine of vocation, but that will get its own post. I’m also in the midst of a few more that I’ll be able to finish before the month is up. Yay for reading time!

Your Turn: What’s one of your favorite mindless/popcorn/beach reads? Something light, silly, or enjoyable? Comment below!